Classic Music Review: Aftermath by The Rolling Stones (UK Version)

The Rolling Stones - Aftermath (uk) (1966)

It was the best of albums, it was the worst of albums . . .

The primary argument supporting the theory that Aftermath was the worst thing The Stones ever did comes from the charge that the record is a misogynstic orgy, a women-bashing extravaganza, a pussy-loathing diatribe. These accusations come primarily from the feminist camp, and I have to admit that prior to engaging in the study of Aftermath in preparation for this review, I shared the feminist perspective to some extent.

Being the irritatingly thorough bitch I am, I decided to challenge that assumption and research the argument further. In the process, I came across a fascinating article on the topic on The F Word website (“F” in this case stands for Feminism) that inspired me to take a fresh look at the perception that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had formed an anti-female cabal engaged in disseminating disparaging propaganda against the vaginal population. Here’s my analysis of the alleged offensive material on Aftermath:

“Mother’s Little Helper.” The charge here is that The Stones are advancing the argument that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. How dare she buy an instant cake and frozen steak for her hard-working hungry husband! I think the feminists are missing the point of the song. The theme is the dissatisfaction of a woman with her lot in modern society, and what Jagger and Richards argue is that rather than dealing with the source of that dissatisfaction, a woman is more likely to turn to prescription drugs to “help her on her way, get her through her busy day.” That’s not misogyny; it was the social reality of the pre-liberation 1960’s. Verdict: Not Guilty.

“Stupid Girl.” I’m sorry, but for women to deny that the presence of airheads in the female population is absurd. I know many women who spend a good deal of their waking lives engaging in what is commonly referred to as “bitching,” so when The Stones sing, “She bitches ’bout things that she’s never seen,” they’re describing an everyday occurrence. Men bullshit, women bitch. As the result of twisted forms of culturalization, many women play dumb because a.) it’s an effective manipulative strategy or b.) they’re hopelessly dumb in the first place. Yes, guys can be equally dumb, but I think the point here is that the narrator is trying to establish a relationship with a member of the opposite sex (“I’ve tried and tried/But it never really works out”) and is bemoaning the lack of intelligence in this dumb broad. This implies that The Stones actually admire intelligence in a woman. Verdict: Not Guilty.

“Under My Thumb.” This is allegedly the best evidence for convicting Jagger and Richards on all counts. Referring to the woman in the song as “the squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day,” the song goes on to describe that now “she does just what she’s told” and that she has been transformed into a trained pet who speaks only when spoken to. As a woman who knows something about sexual power dynamics in relationships, having whipped many a male ass and occasionally having allowed a male to whip mine, I think that what we’re dealing with here is not misogyny but two people who have a naive and self-destructive view of power. Feminists conveniently ignore the key line in the opening verse, “The girl who once pushed me around.” She started it! If that sounds childish, it is; both the woman in the song and Mr. Jagger are guilty of engaging in silly, superficial power games based on a desire to control instead of attempting to establish an authentic relationship that validates the power of both parties (and I would remind the jury that dominance and submission are both forms of power). Verdict: Not Guilty.

Enough sociology! Let’s get on with the music.

The UK version of Aftermath opens with “Mother’s Little Helper.” The U. S. version opens with “Paint It, Black,” a song that does not even appear on the UK version. There’s no way to lose here; both songs are great ways to open an album. “What a drag it is getting old,” sung in splendid isolation with no connection to the first verse, is a provocative and engaging introduction. “Paint It, Black” opens with the mysterious sound of the sitar establishing the memorable melodic line, giving way to Charlie Watts pounding the baseline rhythm to support the more unusual rhythmic accents that drive the rest of the song. There’s no question that “Paint It, Black” is the superior song; shit, it’s one of the most exciting singles ever released! That said, “Mother’s Little Helper” is also a great song with fabulous lyrics and an equally strong bass line, and makes good use of the sitar as well. The Stones being The Stones, it’s no surprise that they made use of the sitar in two upbeat, driving rock ‘n’ roll songs as opposed to the typical pop-rock use of the sitar in more contemplative tunes.

Sticking with the UK version for the rest of this review, “Stupid Girl” is the next track. Jagger has admitted his edginess on this song was driven by a series of bad relationships, so his tone is a bit harsher than it needs to be. I think Ian Stewart’s organ accompaniment really makes this song work, balancing Jagger’s roughness with melodic and rhythmic enthusiasm. The exquisite pairing of Brian Jones on dulcimer and Keith Richards on acoustic guitar announces “Lady Jane,” one of the more atypical songs in The Stones’ catalogue. The interplay between dulcimer, guitar and harpsichord (also contributed by Brian Jones) provides a beautiful backdrop to the song, so much so that I wish they’d left Jagger out of the mix and released it as an instrumental. Jagger’s vocal sounds too stilted and contrived; perhaps he felt awkward in the role of Elizabethan gigolo in search of a sugar mommy; perhaps the range is simply too limiting for him.

That’s certainly not the case with “Under My Thumb,” where Mick is on top of his game. The sporadic and unreliable brilliance of Brian Jones delivers the very seductive marimba hook that drives one of The Stones’ best musical efforts. Every single part, from Charlie’s drums to Bill Wyman’s fuzz bass to Keith’s electric guitar to Brian’s acoustic guitar fill is played and arranged with perfection. Screw the feminists, this is a great fucking song! I know that in saying that I run the risk of feminist vilification, but my research showed me I shall not be alone! Here’s what happened to dissident feminist Camille Paglia when she tried to defend The Stones:

“By the time the women’s movement broke forth in 1969, it was practically impossible for me to be reconciled with my `sisters,’ ” explains Paglia in her book, “Sex, Art and American Culture.” “And there were, like screaming fights. The big one was about the Rolling Stones. This was where I realized–this was 1969–boy, I was bounced fast, right out of the movement. And I had this huge argument. Because I said you cannot apply a political agenda to art. When it comes to art, we have to make other distinctions. We had this huge fight about the song `Under My Thumb.’ I said it was a great song, not only a great song but I said it was a work of art.

“And these feminists of the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band went into a rage, surrounded me, practically spat in my face, literally my back was to the wall. They’re screaming in my face: `Art? Art? Nothing that demeans women can be art!’ There it is! There it is! Right from the start. The fascism of the contemporary women’s movement.” (Source: Chicago Tribune)

The Stones follow this controversial work of art with a roots song, “Doncha Bother Me,” a lively and well-arranged number that is overlooked not only because of what came before but also because of what comes next: “Goin’ Home,” an 11-minute-plus performance that many have criticized as shamelessly indulgent and unnecessarily long.

Obviously, those critics don’t know what it feels like to suffer from what I will term “focused horniness syndrome.”

Picture the scene. You’re on a long, long business trip, far from home. At the time of the trip, you’re in the midst of an exclusive sexual obsession with a particular person. As you move from city to city, from one sterile hotel room to another, the longing becomes almost unbearable. You throw yourself on the hotel bed and drift off into a half-sleep fantasizing about that person, calling up images of the way she or he looks when on the verge of orgasm, their delicious scent, the sweet, intoxicating feeling you get when you feel his or her skin against yours . . . and you toss, turn, cry out, go nuts, try to get yourself off . . . but nothing, nothing, nothing in the world can relieve your tension except to have that particular person in your arms, to hear that voice, to drown yourself in that person’s body and soul. That’s what “Goin’ Home” is all about, especially during that long post-verse riff where Jagger plants himself on the knife edge between human and animal instinct, occasionally coherent, occasionally communicating in broken syllables, word fragments and breaths. The chord never changes during that riff; it’s symbolic of the single-minded nature of obsession. The backing perfectly supports Jagger’s mood changes, which brings up a key feature that marks Aftermath as a different direction for The Stones: they’ve combined their natural talents for the feel of the music with a more disciplined attack.

The saloon-piano opening of “Flight 505” is a nice shift from the heaviness of “Goin’ Home.” The song takes the opposite approach from “Goin’ Home,” for here the narrator is sick to death of hanging out at home and on impulse jumps on a flight chosen at random. When the flight crashes into the sea, the message of the value of staying put is ironically reaffirmed with the wicked sense of humor typical of Jagger and Richards. It’s followed by the hoedown sounds of “High and Dry,” a fun little tune about a guy left high and dry by a woman who has him all figured out.

Remarkably absent from the U. S. version but blessedly present on the U. K. version, The Stones get an opportunity to rescue the song “Out of Time” from the horribly overwrought rendition by Chris Farlowe, which somehow experienced minor chart success. Comparing the two versions will clearly demonstrate my earlier point that The Stones had become quite disciplined in their approach to an arrangement. Brian Jones’ marimba sounds wonderful, but little touches like Keith Richards’ acoustic guitar counterpoint on the verses and the bop-bop background vocals just knock me out with how right they sound. In addition to the overdone vocal, Farlowe’s version is cluttered with strings and loses the rhythm; The Stones version flows naturally and dynamically. The build is so solid that you can hardly wait for the chorus so you can belt out those lines right along with Mick.

The sassy, sexy rocker “It’s Not Easy” follows, marked by very interesting vocal delays, background and great harmonies on the closing line of the chorus. It’s followed by the fascinating dulcimer-driven track “I Am Waiting,” a melodic song that somehow reminds of me of something that might have appeared on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. “Take It Or Leave It” reminds me of something between Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison, a style more in sync with the period of “Out of Our Heads” in structure, but with a more thoughtful arrangement highlighted by Brian Jones on the koto (a Japanese instrument similar to a dulcimer). “Think” is classic Stones with a tight feel and a memorable hook, and I have to point out that Charlie Watts really does some fine work on this piece. The UK version closes with the light and breezy country-ish feel of “What to Do,” a genre they would continue to explore with greater success in Between the Buttons and Beggars Banquet.

As the first album consisting entirely of Jaggers-Richards compositions, Aftermath is a signature expression of The Stones at their peak. The possibilities inherent in new instruments and styles would be further explored with similar success in Between the Buttons, then sadly taken to the extreme in the colossal mess of Their Satanic Majesties Request, where their hard-won discipline deserted them for a relatively brief moment in their long history. We’ll leave that discussion for another day, and close the review where we began.

It was one of the best of albums, and fuck feminist fascism.

11 responses

  1. […] Classic Music Review: Aftermath by The Rolling Stones (UK Version) March 21, 2013 […]

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  2. Why does ‘you cannot apply a political agenda to art’ and ‘fuck [insert movement name] fascism’ usually only apply to sexism, though? Would people really be so cavalier—so ‘oh, it’s no big deal’—if the Stones were singing about their disdain for gays or blacks? If ‘Stupid Girl’ was ‘Stupid Queer’? I doubt it. So why do we excuse it when it comes to women?

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    1. I can only reply from my perspective and I have two contrasting views. As a woman and a blonde I often get the “dumb blonde” assumption from men which I find both offensive and laughable. On the other hand I’m equally offended by stupidity but particularly so when displayed by women because it reinforces the stereotype and validates the myth of male superiority. On that issue, I can relate to the sentiment in the song, though the message would had been more appropriate if written and performed by a woman.

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  3. Just discovered your blog, and love your reviews of Brit invasion, particularly the Kinks. I agree with most of your antithetical approaches to certain albums that achieve “sacred” status — never cared much for Abbey Road, ever, but out of my absolute love for the Beatles music. One qualm I have is your dismissal of the Stones’ “Flowers.” Yes, the album was a shameless act of market exploitation. But one thing I would like to point out is that, back in the early 80s, when I was a moody teenager in America, that album was pretty much the only place you could find some amazing songs left off of American versions of albums – it wasn’t easy to find the original British LPs, and if you did, way too expensive. So discovering “Have you Seen Your Mother,” “Out of Time,” “Backstreet Girl,” “Please Go Home,” “Take it or Leave it,” “Ride on Baby,” and “Sitting on a Fence,” on one album was a pure revelation. And as it is, it is one of the only places still to find “Backstreet Girl,” the most undervalued song in their catalogue, and “Sitting on a Fence,” which still strikes me as one of the more uniquely melancholy songs of theirs. Further, I find it a more interesting “compilation” album than so many of the others out there. I always liked “More Hot Rocks” than “Hot Rocks,” only because it is more interesting.

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    1. I don’t mean to dis Flowers. It’s problematic from the perspective of a musical historian trying to follow an artist’s development, and because I wrote The Stones reviews in sequence, it was a pain in the ass because it duplicated songs on other albums I was reviewing. I covered “Backstreet Girl” in my review of Between the Buttons because I reviewed the UK version, which included it instead of “Ruby Tuesday.” I called it “one of the most beautiful songs The Stones ever recorded,” so I’m definitely with you, and I like “Sitting on a Fence,” too (which would have fit nicely on Between the Buttons).

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      1. Wow! Thank you for the speedy response! I’m a new-comer to your blog, so I’ve only read a few of your reviews – Beatles, Kinks, Stones. I think you are mostly spot-on! In fact, the few reviews you read made me smile because so many reviews of that period in music are fairly dreadful. I am also particularly drawn to anyone who recognizes the beauty of The Village Green Preservation Society and gains pleasure from it. I hope you have the deluxe 3-CD that came out ten or so years ago, because it is a treasure trove of music, and is helpful for anyone who can’t find the wonderful Great Lost Kinks Album (although for some reason Til Death do Us Part is not included). Since you are a rock historian, maybe you know – why didn’t the Stones use Sittin on a Fence? Did they give it to another group, like they gave Out of Time to Chris Farlowe, who turned it into a Tom Jones style monstrosity?

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        1. I am pretty responsive—but remember I do live in Paris and right now it’s bedtime, so I won’t be responsive for long!

          On “Sitting on a Fence,” it was actually recorded in December 1965 and didn’t fit The Stones’ more hard-edged image well, so it was left off Aftermath. By the time Flowers hit the shelves, folk-rock had become more popular and bands were expected to diversify themselves, so the song found a spot there. They gave it to a duo called Twice as Much, who were very much like Chad & Jeremy, Peter & Gordon or The Everly Brothers.

          I do have the deluxe CD and my father owns the original Great Lost Kinks vinyl LP (which is why I was able to review that album as well—it’s too expensive to buy right now). Their version is extreme soft pop . . . almost cute.

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  4. I bought a CD copy of this one a couple years ago (UK version), and I’m still struggling to appreciate it. But the last time I listened to it I liked it a little better, and maybe this review will help. You make a pretty good argument for “Under My Thumb” not being misogynistic, but that only makes me realize that my problem with the lyrics runs a little deeper than that. When I listen to a song, I tend to put myself in the singer’s place, and I’m just not able to do that with this song because it doesn’t sound like any fun at all to have somebody “under my thumb.” Yuck. Having said that, I think it is clearly the best piece of music on this album, and I can still appreciate it on that level.

    It’s interesting to hear you defend the length of “Going Home.” I will try and listen to it with an open mind next time. Honestly, one reason I liked the album better the last time I listened to it was that I skipped this track. I have even been wondering if I might like the US version of this album better, because “Going Home” is at the end of that one instead of in the middle, where it robs the album of its momentum. I will give it at least a few more chances, though. I just needed to take a break from it.

    “I Am Waiting” is a hidden gem and is the main reason I bought this album. Lindsey Buckingham did a faithful cover of it on one of his albums, and it piqued my interest because I did not know the Stones could do a song of this type. I don’t even know what type of song it is, actually. It is a unique piece of music. Sensual and mystical. I especially love how the chorus is withheld for a long time, enhancing the feeling of waiting.

    I appreciate your calling attention to Mick Jagger opening the album with the line, “What a drag it is getting old” sung in isolation. I hadn’t realized how clever that is and how much it adds to the power of the song and hence the entire album. Other songs you mentioned that I appreciate are “Out Of Time” and “High And Dry.” There are still a few that haven’t stuck in my mind yet, though. I think the album is too long, which blunts its impact, along with the questionable sequencing, with the long song in the middle instead of in the end. But I haven’t given up on it yet, and I appreciate your encouraging words about it!

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  5. I would certainly recommend the US album here, although I came to know Aftermath early in my youth through the UK version, then I was blasted away by it, still had already some trouble keeping my attention until the end. This aggravated as I grew older and more interested in the flow of a record, the whole build of it, instead of taken as a bunch of songs I liked. Now that I have the Mono Recordings, I discovered the beauty of starting of with Paint it Black and ending with the now glorious climax about not climaxing: Going Home which felt out of place tucked in between the overload of material. The US configuration just has a darker feel with some of the poppy stuff left out, and I am Waiting as the pen ultimate song reveals itself as the prize number it is. I like Flowers just for that: Out of Time, Take it or Leave it and the great Mother’s Little Helper belong there more, in the company of all those other great pop songs they made in the mid sixties, even if some duplication here remains a shame. By the way, I bow my head respectfully for the insightful criticism on this site, does that mean I am under a thumb?

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    1. Well, you’re dealing with a dominant female here, so I will officially grant you under-my-thumb status.

      I have always found the differences between UK and US albums fascinating, and you make a great point about bookending “Paint It, Black” with “Goin’ Home.” Completely different but valid experience.

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